7 Essentials: Tiffany Weagly-Wilkie

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

April 4, 2016

Below, Performer Stuff’s Editor, Ashleigh Gardner, sits down with Tiffany Weagly-Wilkie, Performer Stuff’s Theatrical Director, for Performer Stuff’s first 7 Essentials Interview. They talk high school theatre, Tiffany’s teaching philosophy, and words of wisdom for any student interested in pursuing theatre.

Ashleigh Gardner: Hi, Tiffany! Can you give us a little bit of information about yourself and your theatre background?

Tiffany Weagly-Wilkie: Of course! I am currently the Theatrical Director for PerformerStuff.com. I spent nine years of my life at William R. Boone High School in Orlando, Florida (home of Troupe 1139!). While I was there, I took a program of 30 (with hardly any name recognition) to a program of hundreds that earned a highly regarded reputation at the district and state Thespian levels in Florida. The students earned 26 “Best in Show” titles at the district level, earned 7 “Critics Choice” state titles, and brought 2 one-acts to the state level for competition. However, the awards aren’t really the important thing. The important thing, and the essence of my teaching philosophy, was that in order to be a good actor you have to be a good person first.

AG: Absolutely. Congratulations to your former students and you! That actually segues into our first question: What, to you, makes theatre essential to middle and high school education?

TWW: Theatre education is essential for all students in school. Any student in any level of education can learn something from theatre. You can take any class, like physics, calculus, music, or even history and apply it to the theatre world in some capacity. It’s a really great thing to tell the parents of a child who might be considering pursuing theatre in middle or high school that their child can use their calculus in set design or construction, for instance. Or even telling a parent that their child, who didn’t think they were a leader, managed a team of 5 other students to create a dress for a production of Romeo and Juliet. I also strongly believe that theatre helps people get over the fear of public speaking.

Consider a young actor who’s just entered middle school: this young person wants to fit in more than anything, so they might change their personality to be more of what they think others want them to be. By finding a theatre program and joining it at the high school level, that student will start to explore who they are as a person during character creation. They’ll slowly begin to realize that they use a little bit of themselves in every role they create. So, therefore, as an actor, you need to figure out who you are as a person so that you can create a true and honest character. I think that that’s really what high school theatre is about: finding out who you are and which roles you can play so that you’ll be able to acquire the right tools. The tools to play a believable character, the tools to go to districts or state competition, and/or the tools to go into college or professional theatre.

AG: Exactly. But it gets difficult financially sometimes at the high school levels, right? Oftentimes, middle and high school theatre departments receive limited funding from their home schools. How did you overcome financial obstacles you faced in your own drama program?

TWW: Great question. My very first year was in 2005, and I inherited a program with debt. I started off the year with zero dollars, but we survived! We produced four shows that year, including a musical. I shopped a lot at Walmart and Goodwill, but we made it work. (Laughs.) I think the number one reason was to get the kids excited about doing theatre again so that they would participate. We also did car washes, sold candy for fundraising, and sold ads for our programs, and we built familiarity in the community so that people would come to our shows. That way we could make money off of ticket sales to help the program grow.

Another way that we made money was improv shows. In early 2008, my friend, (who’s an improv teacher) and I had an idea to create this improv group called Deep Thoughts Improv. Over the course of eight weeks, the kids had improv rehearsal twice a week.  And at the end of those eight weeks, the kids produced a show for an audience, and that show brought in about $1,500. During the years following that first show, the improv show got so popular that I didn’t have to market the show at all. I would simply put something on the announcements about the show, and I would maybe create a Facebook invitation. And we would make at least $1,500-$2,000 after each show with very little marketing. Fast forward to my final year — we started off the year with thousands in the bank from years of doing shows and building up a reputation. So we went from negative $1,500 in 2005 to nine years later—thousands to start the year off with. Which…is not too shabby. (Laughs.)

AG: That’s incredible. And because you’ve worked with high school students for nine years, you have to have some words of wisdom for them about choosing monologues and scenes. When looking for competition material, what should a high school student look for?

TWW: It’s really important to know yourself and know how others see you, but also what type of characters you can play first. Once you discover if you’re a character actor or a villain or an ingénue or a lead, then begin to seek out material that you personally connect with.

One example I remember is a student of mine who graduated in 2013. She spent three months on YouTube trying to find the perfect solo for districts. And she ended up finding a song from the Little Mermaid that was originally done as a small group (the song “I Want the Good Times Back”). She ended up cutting that song and making it a solo piece and spent a lot of time on it. I helped her, of course, with the blocking and whatnot. But because she had this intrinsic desire to want to do it on her own, she found a character that she connected with, one that she could play, a song that she could sing. And she ended up taking it to Districts and won “Best in Show” there, and then she went on to be one of the 7 State Critic’s Choice titles I mentioned.

So, for students, my number one thing is to figure out who you are and then do the work to find the piece that works for you. It’s not easy. Don’t ask someone to do it for you. You find it yourself. I think you’ll get the best results with that.

AG: That’s really great advice. What about “scary” or challenging material? How should a student approach material that they find particularly intimidating, like Shakespeare or a piece that may be very mature for them?

TWW: Well, I think high school is the time when you can play roles that are beyond your years (that are more mature) and attempt to do Shakespeare. I think it all comes down to doing your research, reading the whole play, and doing the other acting techniques that help you discover the character. Or perhaps you use a character dossier, or you create a collage of costumes that the character might wear. You could even interview your mom or dad, if it’s a parent you’re playing. You can also ask your English teacher or history teacher, any faculty member who is interested in cross-curriculum education, for help understanding the context of the scene

But also, you know, if you’re playing King Lear in high school, you might want to ask yourself, “Why am I playing King Lear in high school?” (Laughs.) But I think it’s also a good question of knowing your limitations and what you can play. You may be able to play King Lear, but you also may not. You should definitely challenge yourself, but I also feel that you should be realistic about the type of character that you’d be believable playing. And I feel like there’s a delicate balance between those two.

I’d also advise you to avoid edgy material for the sake of being edgy. If you want to perform a piece that contains explicit material, do this: choose something that you personally connect with that tells a story where you’re emotionally truthful. Choose the material because you connect to it, not because it’ll grab someone’s attention.

AG: Agreed. The advice about including other people in your character’s research is wonderful. Adults have so much influence. That being said, what is a personal quality that you tried to instill in your students?

TWW: I think to be a better actor you have to be a better person, so I really tried hard to combat the typical behaviors that take place in middle and high school theatre program, like gossip or pinning one another against each other for roles. Or, you know, being negative in general. I really tried hard to create an environment that felt like a family so that students could really view their Thespian troupe as their second family — people who would love them unconditionally and have their backs when the time came, if it ever did. Because some students don’t actually have great home lives, so their drama family became their family. And all the things that I talked about in terms of finding out who you are and being able to feel free to experiment and create characters without judgment, all of that took place because of that family environment. I think if kids felt that their Thespian experience represented a positive family environment, then I succeeded as a teacher.

AG: And what advice would you give to a student on how to foster a positive environment with their peers in a drama program?

TWW: I honestly think that peer mediation is one of the best tools. If a teacher sets up an encouraging learning environment from the time the student is in Theatre I, where it’s not oppressive, the students feel like, there’s rules—yes, but they’re able to feel comfortable and relaxed. I really think it starts with the student leaders. If the students feel comfortable mediating amongst themselves and not having to go to a teacher about problems, you create an autonomy there. That’s really where the positive environment starts, and I really speak from experience there. It’s really hard to control, you know, the gossip and the murmuring. That stuff’s gonna happen. But if you have one or two students that the other students respect, who are willing to say, “Hey, let’s not talk about this,” or, “Hey, let’s stay positive,” I find that students really react very well to that sort of thing.

AG: Learning that kind of autonomy is really essential to becoming an adult, as well, when they may fail. What words of wisdom would you give to a student who is afraid they will fail?

TWW: You have to fail to fly. You have to be okay with letting yourself fall out of the nest like a baby bird. You’re gonna hit the ground a few times. And in this “gotta get the A” educational environment, theatre can be a hard place to be because there’s no right or wrong answer. I feel like in theatre, you gotta be okay with making mistakes. In theatre, you are creating something. You are making art. You are making a dress. You are painting the set. You are creating the character, making the choices.  We used to have a saying at Boone: “How do you fail? EPICALLY!” And kids wouldn’t be afraid to get up there and make a mistake, and they would be able to take criticism from their peers and grow and learn, and I think that is such an awesome thing for young people to learn. They can take it with them post-high school. So again, my number one words of wisdom would be, don’t be afraid to fail, because in order to fly, you have to fail.

AG: Awesome! Thank you for a great interview, Tiffany.

TWW: You’re welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

Tiffany Weagly-Wilkie is the Director of Theatricals for PerformerStuff.com. She also serves as the Casting Director for The Imagination House.

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelor’s in English Literature and Master’s in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and PerformerStuff.com’s Editor.